Speaker: Cynthia Lapp
Today is Reign of Christ Sunday or as it was originally known, “Christ the King” Sunday. Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, aka the “sarcastic Lutheran,” tweeted this week – “Pope Pius XI established Christ the King Sunday in 1925 to counter what he regarded as destructive forces of racism and the totalitarian claims of Nazi ideologues. Happy antifa Sunday everyone.” Pastor Nadia does have a way with words.
I don’t want to get too political but we need a Sunday like this after seeing how the “justice” system in the “kingdom” of Wisconsin works. A white teenage boy who struts around with an automatic weapon and murders two people is innocent? We need a Sunday like this when an attorney in the “kingdom” of Georgia decides that black clergy in the court room intimidate the jury by their very presence.
Reign of Christ Sunday is a reminder that the one we follow also spent time in a court room. The Jesus we follow also was treated unjustly by the legal system. He doesn’t fight back but neither does he exactly cooperate with the system. When asked by Pilate if he is king of the Jews, Jesus answers the way a good rabbi does – with a question. Jesus goes on to say “My realm is not of this world; if it belonged to this world, my people would have fought to keep me out of the hands of the Temple authorities. No, my realm is not of this world.”
Jesus’ words from John’s gospel, “my kingdom is not of this world,” and the idea that there is no fighting in this Godly realm, these are words that most Anabaptists have taken literally, for centuries. Jesus’ declaration pushed Mennonites to withdraw from the rest of the world – well, Jesus’ words and the need to preserve their lives from the governments that were after them. For centuries, a certain strand of Mennonites created enclaves of people that looked alike, and purported to think alike. It was their way of following Jesus, by creating an alternative kingdom that is not of this world, just like Jesus says in John 17 or Paul says in Romans 12 – Do not be conformed to this world.
But ”my realm is not of this world” is only part of what Jesus says to Pilate. Jesus’ fuller response in John is I was born and came into the world for one purpose – to bear witness to the truth. What if this is what it could mean to be Anabaptist, bearing witness to the truth?
One of the many things that we have done as a congregation during this very long covid time is create and craft a new mission statement. Writing a new mission statement is not usually at the top of the list of things congregations are eager to do but … The pandemic gave us a different kind of space and time to consider and reconsider our mission, to think about who we are and who we want to be.
Thirty years ago, when we wrote our previous mission statement, we were teetering on the edge: Were we or were we not of this world. Our previous statement read in part:
“Hyattsville Mennonite Church is an urban, Christian congregation committed to making Mennonite traditions and beliefs relevant in the cultural setting of the Washington DC metropolitan area.”
As a good mission statement should, it reflected our context and the people who wrote it. (A few of us are still around.) In those years, some of the congregation was still recovering from difficult internal conflicts that had caused people to leave. Maintaining our familiar Mennonite identity and congregation-based decision making, nurturing ourselves and creating a stable community in a transient setting, these felt primary.
It is a big stretch to say that we were trying to create an alternative “kingdom” but our mission from 1990 does feel to me, now looking back on it, rather inward looking.
Thirty years later, after a dozen intense years of conflict with the conference, and four years of a far right presidency, our perspective has shifted. Now we describe ourselves as: an inclusive Anabaptist community of faith, hope, and love following Jesus and seeking equity, justice and peace for ourselves, our communities and our world.
(As you know, this is not the whole statement but it is the opening sentence and it is short enough to memorize. Go ahead, I dare you.)
In this single sentence, I hear that we recognize that we are part of something larger. We are connected to the biblical story (faith, hope, and love, straight out of I Corinthians 13. ) We are connected to the Anabaptist tradition. We are following Jesus, not just for ourselves but also for our communities and our world. We are looking out for each other while at the same time expanding the circle of who we consider included. Where our Mennonite ancestors seemed to be trying to fence off a separate kingdom, we are moving the fenceposts, maybe even removing some of the fencing to expand and include more of God’s children.
Jesus tells Pilate, “I was born and came into the world for one purpose – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who seeks the truth hears my voice.” It is easy to get stuck at the preceding phrase – “My kingdom is not of this world.” But Jesus was not trying to build a kingdom, he came to bear witness to the truth. Likewise, our mission as followers of Jesus is not to build some kind of alternate empire. Our congregational context happens to be right here – near the middle of a very powerful empire. We are not trying to build a parallel empire. No, we are making choices to live with faith, hope and love, toward equity, justice and peace. I hope these choices help us be like Jesus, to bear witness to the truth.
This may sound like a good shift in our mission but it is. not. simple. One example. This week we had our monthly meeting of the community chaplains with the new Hyattsville police chief. We talked about our purpose as chaplains and pastors – from being bridges between the community and the police, to standing for justice like the hundreds of clergy outside the courthouse in Georgia. The chief shared his hope that we can help build relationships between police and our congregations, maybe even have the police visit our churches.
I confess I am not sure what was said after that. Police visiting our churches? I started imagining police officers, even the ones I know and trust, coming to Sunday morning worship in uniform, guns on their hips. And I wondered what that would mean for us. We say we are an inclusive Anabaptist community… Are we ready to be that inclusive? Or does our desire for equity, justice and peace hold more sway than our commitment to inclusion? Our mission statement does say: Central to our hope for the community is serving others through building relationships.
Our mission statement also says: Central to our hope for the community is understanding our roles in systems of injustice and working to dismantle them.
Where is “truth” in all of this? How would building relationships with the police, or police officers visiting our congregation fit into another part of our mission statement: living into the audacity of faith, fostering peace and nonviolence as we help build a church and world free of racism, oppression, and poverty.
Furthermore, what would our friends from Life After Release think about having police worshipping with us or even just stopping by for potlucks? It was one thing to have officers come to the ESL Baking class and share scones and muffins in church basement during the week, but be here on a Sunday morning? Jesus says, Everyone who seeks the truth hears my voice. What would the voice of Jesus say in this situation?
The “truth” is that this faith stuff is not always uncomplicated and it certainly isn’t stagnant. What was perfectly understandable, life-giving and meaningful at one point may come to feel restrictive. What at one point seemed nonsensical may become an intriguing mystery of faith. If, when, we are truly living into the audacity of faith, there will be change. God is in the changing. And the changing may lead us to live from one truth into another truth.
Our mission statement changed after 30 years (it probably should have changed sooner but…) That doesn’t mean that we had it wrong then. It means that we as a congregation grew and changed. We are different people, different members, now. Some of us weren’t even born in 1990! In another 20 years, even if some of us are still here, I hope that we will look at our 2021 mission statement, smile at who we were and say, “They said it that way then but now we define ourselves and what it means to live out our faith in this way.”
This is the way of a dynamic, living, growing faith, a living growing mission. It changes and shifts, it questions and wonders. This is true for our faith as individuals and for our faith life as a congregation.
We are an inclusive Anabaptist community of faith, hope, and love, following Jesus and seeking equity, justice, and peace for ourselves, our communities, and our world.
On this Reign of Christ Sunday, when we remember that Jesus went to jail, that Jesus’ reign is not of this world, let’s also remember that Jesus was a witness to the truth. Jesus said, Everyone who seeks the truth hears my voice. Let’s look for, and celebrate, the ways that we can keep growing and changing as we too seek the truth and listen for Jesus’ voice.